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Wednesday, 11 December 2013
Page: 1544


Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Government Business in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Social Services) (18:27): If you look at the Notice Paper—which I know you do constantly, all-day-every-day, Mr Deputy President—you would see the two motions for disallowance that Senator Polley has before us today. The titles of the disallowance motions make them appear fairly innocuous. They read:

That the Residential Care Subsidy Amendment (Workforce Supplement) Principle 2013, made under the Aged Care Act 1997, be disallowed.

That the Aged Care Subsidies Amendment (Workforce Supplement) Determination 2013, made under the Aged Care Act 1997, be disallowed.

They sound fairly innocuous when you read them, but what these two disallowance motions actually represent is an act of unmitigated—I will choose my words carefully here—mischief. There is a stronger phrase I was tempted to use, but I am always keen to observe the decorum of the chamber.

The coalition was very clear before the election that we had some significant issues with the Aged Care Workforce Supplement. It sounded good in theory. Who could be against better wages for people who work in the aged-care sector? But there were some significant qualifications on—

Senator Polley: You obviously are. Give us a commitment.

Senator FIFIELD: I am sorry, Mr Deputy President, but if the interjections continue, I may be forced to make reference to a Tasmanian publication of record. I would not want to be tempted to do that. But I will continue.

There were some significant qualifications in the previous government's Aged Care Workforce Supplement, and they included a requirement for certain aged-care providers to be part of an enterprise bargaining agreement with unions in order to access funds. That clearly was a cover for the Australian Labor Party in government yet again trying to use a sector in order to entrench further union membership. We on this side of the chamber are not at all against union membership. We recognise the important role that unions play in Australia, and that employees have an entitlement to be represented in the manner of their choosing. Our issue is that we do not believe that individuals should in any way be compelled, nor do we believe, for that matter, that employers should be placed in a position where they will be penalised or coerced through financial incentives to have a workplace that may do other than represent the free will of employees as expressed.

Senator Polley: What are you going to do with the $1.1 billion?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order on my left!

Senator FIFIELD: So we had some difficulty with the Aged Care Workforce Supplement. We made clear before the election that if elected we would seek to suspend the workforce supplement. That is what we did when we came into government—Minister Andrews created a legislative instrument that would suspend further applications for that supplement. There were some 18 providers who had already been approved for the supplement, and we undertook that we would continue to ensure that those providers received that supplement, that payments to those people who had applied and reached agreement in good faith would continue.

So we suspended further applications for the supplement, but we did indicate that we were committed to seeing the money that had been allocated to the workforce supplement returned to the general pool in aged care. We thought it was important to take a very different approach to that of the previous government in determining how best to deploy those resources. There was originally, I think, about $1.2 billion in the supplement. When you take into account the money that has already been allocated it is about $1.1 billion that is left.

Rather than seeking to use that money to pursue particular industrial ends, as the previous government did, we want to take—and indicated that we would—a consultative approach with the sector. So we will sit down with the sector and work through how best to deploy that money. It is important to remember that we are talking about a very significant amount of money here: $1.1 billion. It is always important to remember that these are taxpayer dollars. We need to think very carefully about how best to deploy that money and so we will work in a cooperative way with the sector to determine how best to do that.

For the record, I should just read into the Hansard what the coalition said before the election in relation to this funding. We said:

As a first priority, the Coalition will take the necessary steps to put back into the general pool of aged care funding the $1.2 billion allocated to the Workforce Compact and work with providers to ensure that these funds are distributed in a way that is more flexible and better targeted, without jeopardising the viability of aged care facilities.

And that is exactly what we will do.

I should also share with you, Mr Deputy President, the release which explains the rationale for what we are doing. I will just briefly share it with you, because I know you take a close interest in this sector. This release was issued by me and Minister Andrews, and is headed 'Investing in the aged care workforce':

The Coalition Government today announced the first step in delivering on the Government’s Healthy Life, Better Ageing commitments.

The Government recognises that increased pay and improved conditions are essential to attract and retain skilled workers to the sector, while being affordable and sustainable. Recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of skilled, dedicated workers to the aged care sector is crucial for Australia’s aged care system to meet the community’s increasing need for aged care services.

The Aged Care Workforce Supplement introduced by the former government did not guarantee improved pay and conditions for all aged care workers and many providers could not justify applying because the Supplement would not have covered their additional costs.

I think that is an important point. It continued:

For many providers the funding was also conditional upon the signing of a union-dictated EBA.

This goes to the point I was making before, that the government does not believe that we should use particular sectors, and funding in particular sectors, to seek to achieve particular industrial outcomes that may be important to the Labor Party. The statement continues:

The Government is committed to working with the sector to develop a policy which will ensure that available funding is distributed in a way that is flexible, targeted and ensures the viability of aged care providers.

For this reason, the Government has taken the responsible step of suspending applications for the Workforce Supplement introduced by the former government while it consults with the sector on alternative policy options.

I know that is an unfamiliar concept to those opposite—to actually consult with the sector rather than having a predetermined agenda to achieve an industrial outcome. The statement continues:

Aged care providers that are eligible for the Supplement will have their funding honoured and the Department of Social Services will continue to process applications that have already been received. The Government will consider transitional arrangements for these providers as it develops alternative policy options.

That was the statement of 26 September which was seeking to explain and give effect to our pre-election commitment. And on that day Minister Andrews created the legislative instrument which the opposition are today seeking to disallow. It is yet another example of the opposition not accepting the result of the election.

It is bad enough that the opposition do not accept the fact that the Australian people voted for a change of government. It is bad enough that the opposition do not accept that the Australian people voted to abolish the carbon tax. This is yet another instance where the opposition do not accept that there was change of government, do not accept that the incoming government had a clear policy and do not accept the right of the government to give effect to that policy. What we are seeing here with these disallowance motions is the Australian Labor Party seeking to govern from the political grave. One would have thought they would have heeded the message from the last election and allowed the government to get on with its agenda. So it is disappointing that the opposition have moved these disallowance motions, which will only create unnecessary uncertainty in the aged-care sector. That is extremely unfortunate.

While I am on my feet I think it is important to draw the chamber's attention to Senator Polley's approach when we were in Senate estimates and aged care was before the Community Affairs Legislation Committee. Senator Polley seemed to be of the view that aged-care quality equals red tape, and red tape equals aged-care quality, because whenever this government has stated that it intends to seek to reduce red tape in the aged-care sector the opposition have said, 'What the government really wants to do is to reduce quality, to reduce standards.' I for one do not think we have yet reached some sort of regulatory nirvana in aged care. I think it is prudent for the government of the day, whoever they may be, to always look to see how red tape can be reduced in the aged-care sector. If aged-care workers, who those opposite profess have such an interest in, are spending time on paperwork that does not add to quality and does not add to care, that is time that those aged-care workers cannot be spending doing what they do best, and that is providing care to older Australians. So I take this opportunity to encourage those opposite, in particular Senator Polley, to take a fresh look at the issue of red tape and compliance—

Senator Sinodinos: Have an open mind.

Senator FIFIELD: Yes, have an open mind. In a previous incarnation, in opposition, Senator Sinodinos has done some absolutely sterling work across a range of portfolios on proposals to reduce red tape and compliance. That role has now been assumed by the member for Kooyong, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, Mr Frydenberg, who is doing that, as he does all things, with great enthusiasm. I have been keeping Mr Frydenberg updated on the work this government has undertaken to further reduce red tape.

There was an important instance recently where some pricing guidelines drafted by the previous government would have required providers of aged-care services to provide, in excruciating and unnecessary detail in their product offerings, things like the number of lights in a roof, the number of lights in a facility, whether there was carpet or vinyl. There were some important out clauses: they were not actually going to insist that they specify the colour of the carpet. That is what those opposite considered to be taking a light-handed approach to regulatory issues. We determined that, yes, it is important that there be appropriate information for consumers, because it is very important that we have informed consumers in aged care, but we did not want to have such an excruciatingly unnecessary level of detail and to be requiring providers to document at every step how they had reached that point of the information they were disclosing. We decided we are going to have much more simplified guidelines. That is the sort of approach that we will take.

I know I have digressed a little from the disallowance motions that are before us, Mr Deputy President. What we want to do is to work with the sector. We want to seek their views as to how this significant funding can best be deployed. I touched earlier on some of our concerns about the structure of the workforce supplement, the workforce compact. I want to go a little further into our pre-election policy. We said in our policy:

Labor's Workforce Compact appears to be more about boosting union membership than improving aged care and adds to the regulatory quagmire without guaranteeing improved conditions for all workers.

The Coalition believes that Labor's Workforce Compact is discriminatory as it does not apply to all workers. Under Labor, providers with 50 or more beds will need to enter into an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) and comply with the conditions of the Workforce Supplement to access funding. Providers with less than 50 beds need not enter into an EBA, but must however comply with the conditions of the Workforce Supplement to access funding.

There is always a little hook, always a little catch. The policy went on:

This aspect of the legislation was the key issue of contention at the … Senate inquiry into the Living Longer, Living Better package of Bills. The evidence was clear that many providers could not justify accessing the supplement as it fell far short of the actual cost of the proposed wage increases with providers having to meet on-costs.

It also went on to say:

Had Labor been serious about improving conditions in the sector, they could have worked through existing frameworks …

and the policy then mentioned some of those.

So we want to take a fresh look at this funding. As I said, it is quite a significant amount. We will look at this in the context of the significant consultation which we are going to undertake with the sector and a big part of that consultation is going to be looking for further ways to reduce red tape.

Aged care and the ageing portfolio is an extremely exciting place to be working on. We do have an ageing population. The number of centenarians that we have in Australia is going to dramatically increase over the next 10 or 15 years. That represents a huge untapped resource in the nation, and not just centenarians but also those older Australians beyond the age of 65. We need to look for ways to harness that great national resource.

But there are Australians who, as they age, obviously need a little more help and that is where the aged-care part of the ageing portfolio comes into play. I am pleased that certainly in the last parliament there was a large degree of bipartisanship when it came to aged-care policy and aged-care reform. Yes, we do disagree with the Labor Party on the aged-care supplement, but I hope that it is possible to have a civil disagreement about one area of policy and that, more broadly in aged care, we perhaps can follow the model that there has been in disability where the various parties in parliament come together to work for a common outcome. I hope that is the case, because just as Australians with disability have little time for petty partisan point-scoring, I think that ageing Australians and particularly those in aged care and their families do not have much time for petty partisan point-scoring in this area either. They just want us to get on with the job, making sure that those who face some extra challenges as a result of ageing get the additional support they need. As I have indicated, Mr Deputy President, we will not be supporting this disallowance motion. (Time expired)